Europe’s deal on Greek debt

the Greek sovereign debt deal

Europe appears to have reached another milestone in its circuitous journey toward resolution of its twin debt crises–Greece and its banks’ unknown, but presumably very large, exposure to sub-prime mortgage debt.

Yesterday’s development is that commercial banks in the EU have agreed to “voluntarily” agree to forgive half the amount the Greek government owes them and write down the value of their Greek sovereign debt by 50%.

Although sharply higher stock prices in Asia, Europe and in pre-market trading in the US signal investor relief, I don’t think it’s particularly surprising that the banks would accede to the wishes of their governments to do so.  For one thing, defying your central bankers is never a good idea.  But in this case agreement brings tangible advantages to the banks as well.

Press reports have made it clear that, earning once again their reputation as the world’s ultimate “dumb money,” the big EU commercial banks had enabled hedge funds to bet heavily on a Greek default by taking the other side of hundreds of billions of euros of credit default swaps.  So the banks would be facing mammoth losses if Greece defaulted and they had to pay off.

But the EU has found what it considers a loophole in the language of the CDS contracts. Technically speaking, it argues, if creditors “voluntarily” forgive a portion of Greece’s debt–which they have just agreed to do–that action doesn’t count as a default; the CDS payoffs aren’t triggered.

Maybe this interpretation is sound, maybe not.  But it’s what the EU is going to do.  National regulators will certainly order their banks not to pay any CDS claims.  Hedge funds can sue.  Litigation would doubtless be long and expensive, however.  And it would provoke the ire of EU politicians, who might find ways to make litigants’ lives more difficult in other areas.

So the bank agreement appears to make the threat to bank solvency of their CDS exposure go away.

what I make of the EU situation

To my mind, resolution to the EU financial crisis has three possible outcomes:

1.  The Greece et al sovereign debt crisis spins out of control–causing the failure of one or more major banks, a run on the euro and a collapse of the EU political structure.  While this is going on, we discover that one of the now-defunct institutions has a crucial, but hitherto unappreciated, role in world commerce.  So the global economy comes to a screeching halt, just like it did after the Lehman bankruptcy.

There’s no evidence there’s an EU Lehman and it’s hard to believe the world would shoot itself in the foot a second time.  On the other hand, the EU has shown itself particularly ill-suited to deal with a financial crisis.  recent trading show clearly that global equity investors have been worried about this possibility, but I regard Lehman II as about as unlikely as you can get.  It’s even less likely today.

2.  Same as #1, except no Lehman.  That is to say, a big banking failure paralyzes the EU.  Most of the economic damage is domestic.  There are ripple effects elsewhere, but they’re not gigantic.

It seems to me that today’s news is also the start of taking this worry off the table.

how important is the EU?

Sizing the problem in the most simple-minded way (all I’m capable of), the world economy is divided about 50-50 into emerging and developed markets.  Half the developed part is the US and another 5% is the UK.  That leaves 20% for Euroland.

Suppose banking failure(s) caused a severe recession in the euro area.  Real output drops by 5%.  That would reduce total world output by 1% (5% x .2), and developed world output by 2%, in the year following the blowup.  factoring in ripple effects, the developed world would stagnate; the developing world would power along, but a bit more slowly.  The whole world would grow at, say, 2.5% next year instead of 3.5%-4.0%, if the blowup happened now.

…something you’d like to avoid, but not such a big deal.

As surprising as this thought may be to Americans with cultural roots in Europe, Euroland is no longer big enough to matter that much to overall world growth, except in extreme circumstances.

True, Europe has a lot of accumulated wealth–which we’ve seen on display, I think, in the periodic panic selling that has marked the past few months.  But it’s too wrapped up in what looks to an outsider like petty regional politics to focus on getting GDP to expand.  And much of the rest of the world is passing it by.

3.  The financial crisis is addressed, the banks recapitalize and the EU begins to heal its wounds, following the general trajectory of the US economy with a three-year lag.  Dreary as it sounds, I think this is both the most favorable and most likely case.

equity implications

Not much different from what I’ve been writing for a long time.  In cases #1 and #2, equity investors would be better off not holding EU-listed securities and should shade their other holdings away from companies with a large percentage of their business in the EU.

In case 3, it’s safe to dip a toe in the water.  But growth outside the EU will likely be much better than growth inside.  So the relative winners will be EU-listed firms with large exposure to foreign markets.  In a non-recessionary EU, these stocks stand to be winners on the world equity stage as well, since EU investors will likely concentrate heavily on them.

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